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Artwork Diplomacy
A Chinese art lover and museum curator promotes cultural exchanges between China and Africa
By Li Jing | VOL.10 December ·2018-12-07

Sculptures collected by Xie Yansheng (LI JING)

Within the walls of the International Museum of African Art (IMAA), thousands of artworks from many African tribes are preserved and exhibited, including wood, stone and bronze carvings, pottery, clothing, jewelry and paintings, among others. 

Located in Lomé, capital of Togo, there is, however, something curious about the museum. The curator is not a Togolese, but a Chinese Xie Yanshen. 

Born in 1952 in east China's Shanghai, Xie grew up in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province. His father, also an artist, studied in Japan in the 1930s, from where he brought back a large number of books on Western art history. Instead of playing with toys, young Xie at that time was always engrossed in these books. 

"Thanks to my father's work, I got to know many stories about art and many people working in this field, so I have had a great interest in art since my childhood," he said. 

In February 1989, Xie, who studied music at university and was then working for a symphony orchestra in Jiangsu, was invited to teach music and violin classes in Togo. He accepted the job right away. 

"Before my departure, my father had told me that Africa was nothing like we thought. Africa has produced many masterpieces of art and music, especially sculpture. But you have to mingle with local people to really understand African art," said Xie. 

Keeping in mind his father's words, Xie set foot in Africa for the first time at the age of 37. This was the beginning of a love story that has been going on for almost 30 years. 

From violin to sculpture 

Upon arrival, Xie was eager to know everything about Africa. Whenever he had time, he visited villages and markets to take pictures. It was during one of his visits that he discovered carved ebony handicrafts. As ebony is also the main material for making fingerboards for violins, these carvings immediately caught Xie's attention and his passion for African sculpture began. 

"At first, I bought these sculptures because I found them beautiful. Later, I realized that they were merely tourist products, and that traditional sculptures were much better. So I started collecting traditional African sculptures, which are more primitive, because their instinct is human and comes from life and culture," said Xie. 

Little by little, Xie collected thousands of artworks from different tribes. In 2011, he decided to open the MIAA in Lomé, where he exhibits his own collection on about 1,630 square meters. 

"Africans are wise. They are inspired by life and represent their daily life in their artworks. Tools used in life or sacrifice rituals are also made into works of art. For example, the Senufo wood carvings are also tools for tamping down the ground. Their life is part of their art," explained Xie. 

Over the years, the museum has welcomed many important visitors, including Wang Zuofeng, China's Ambassador to Togo at the time, who congratulated Xie for his art collection and important work. He suggested that Xie should try to strengthen links between Togolese cultural institutions and China's National Museum, to better promote cultural and artistic exchanges between the two countries. 

The National Museum of China completed its expansion and opened to the public in 2012. On this occasion, Xie donated part of his collection to the museum, which presented them as part of the inaugural exhibition on African sculpture. 

"It was the first time for the National Museum of China to exhibit artworks from other countries together with its own collections," he said. 

Xie Yanshen (left) introduces wood carvings to a visitor (LI JING) 

From Lomé to Beijing 

In late 2005, Xie organized an exhibition on African sculpture at Nanjing University of the Arts. Many teachers and students told him that they had never seen such works of art. Since then, Xie took it upon himself to help more art teachers, students and ordinary people appreciate African art. 

His wish will soon come true. Part of Xie's African collection is now being transferred to a museum in the T3 Artistic Community in the northeast part of Beijing. Covering more than 1,000 square meters, the museum will include thousands of artworks, in addition to a classroom and a studio. 

"I hope that Chinese will be able to appreciate African artworks without having to go abroad," he said. 

But it has not been easy to create such a museum. The biggest challenge was protecting works of art during their expedition from Africa to China. Indeed, some artworks were damaged during transportation. In addition, wood carvings are sensitive to climate variability and crack as time goes. 

"I invited some wood carving artists in Togo to do repair work. This way, the audiences can enjoy the best artworks in Beijing," he said. 

According to Xie, the museum is expected to complete in early 2019, after which his workshop will be open to teachers and students of art universities. 

"I hope teachers and students can find inspiration here, just like Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse were inspired by African art and finally launched new schools of painting," he said. 

African art deserves to be appreciated, but also to be studied, he added. This is why he is currently exploring ways of cooperation with art schools such as the Academy of Arts and Design of Tsinghua University, the Central Academy of Fine Arts and the Nanjing University of the Arts. 

But beyond that, Xie also hopes to enable more ordinary people to understand and appreciate African art. He intends to fulfill this mission by holding various cultural activities in his museum, bringing African arts into Chinese people's lives. 

"If we want to develop connections between different peoples in different countries, they first need to understand each other. In the context of the Belt and Road Initiative and China-Africa friendly cooperation, I hope I can do my best to let Chinese better know and appreciate Africa," he said.  

(Comments to lijing@chinafrica.cn) 

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